On Tuesday, after a one-week delay caused by the government shutdown, President Donald Trump will deliver his second State of the Union address to Congress. He has reportedly been honing its message for weeks with help from Stephen Miller and other members of his communications team, underscoring the central part that speechwriters play in conveying a president’s political ideas. Here are three books that explore this behind-the-scenes role and explain the importance of presidential speeches.
My Hopey, Changey White House Years
By David Litt
320 pp. Ecco. (2017)
Litt, who is now a head writer at Funny or Die, landed a dream job when he became Barack Obama’s speechwriter at 24 years old. In this coming-of-age memoir, he recounts his time in the White House and writes honestly about being a speechwriter. “‘Speechwriter to the president’ suggested access and influence,” Litt wrote. “In reality I was a kind of rhetorical handyman, keeping our stump speech up to code.”
WHITE HOUSE GHOSTS
Presidents and Their Speechwriters
By Robert Schlesinger
579 pages. Simon & Schuster. (2008)
In this “often lively, sometimes plodding but always valuable and painstakingly researched” history of speechwriting (our reviewer’s words), Schlesinger, whose father was the Kennedy speechwriter Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., argued that presidents’ political success was often tied to their effective use of speechwriters. He traces the development of the profession from when political advisers doubled as writers to today, when speechwriters have increased visibility and the process has grown more involved and complex.
LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG
The Words That Remade America
By Garry Wills
317 pp. Simon & Schuster. (1992)
What may be the greatest, and best-known, presidential speech in American history was written not by a speechwriter but by the president himself. Our reviewer called Wills’s book-length analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address “a brilliant book that surpasses anything written before” about that speech. In 272 words, Lincoln “extended the meaning of the Civil War by including the larger philosophy in the Declaration that ‘all men are created equal,’” our reviewer wrote about Wills’s argument. “He meant to win the Civil War on ideological as well as military terms: ‘Words had to complete the work of the guns.’”